Jack’s Abby Brewing has built its reputation as being the leading specialty lager brewery in New England. Its beat out German breweries at the World Beer Cup, nabbed two gold medals at the last Great American Beer Fest, was named Massachusetts’ best brewery by RateBeer, and has numerous beer and business awards hanging in its taproom. In just three years, the Hendler family’s brewery has revitalized the legacy of the lager in the craft beer industry; though Jack’s Abby’s propensity for creating one-of-a-kind lagers came more from necessity than a thought-out business plan.
Before Jack’s Abby, the Hendler family business was the Saxony Ice Co., founded by the brother’s grandfather, Richard Hendler in 1964. As Eric recalls, the three brothers worked at the business as a summer job from when they were “old enough to lift a bag of ice.” When Richard retired, the business was handed over to Paul Hendler. Naturally, Jack, Sam, and Eric assumed they were next in line.
“I got a phone call in my junior year of college from my father, telling me he had sold the family business. I thought, what the hell am I supposed to do now?” said Jack. “I hadn’t made any plans other than going into the family business. So it’s junior year, you have no career goals or ambitions up to the time you’re 20 years old. What’s the most interesting thing you could possibly get into? Beer.”
Using his contacts from the ice business, Jack got an internship cleaning kegs at Greenpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, New York in 2005.
“We used to deliver ice to Heartland Brewpubs. Greenpoint brews all the beer for them, and I was able to make contact with the brewing side of the business,” said Jack.
After working at Greenpoint for two months, Jack took a job at Boston Beer Works. It was there he started to learn about the brewing process.
“I was extremely lucky to work with five brewers who combined, had 50-plus years of brewing experience. I absorbed everything I could and asked all the questions I could think of,” said Jack. “It was an unbelievable opportunity to learn about the art, science, and leadership involved in operating a brewery.”
While at Boston Beer Works, Jack took a one-year leave to attend the World Brewing Academy – a joint degree program offered by the Siebel Institute of Technology, run out of the Goose Island Brewpub in Chicago, and the Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany.
At first, Jack’s brothers were skeptical of his newfound affinity for brewing.
“During Jack’s training, we thought it was just a fun thing. But after a couple years while he was learning how to brew, we tried some of his beers and realized it was actually really good,” said Eric.
With Saxony Ice long gone, the Hendler brothers saw an opportunity.
“We grew up in a family business, and it just seemed natural to go for it,” said Eric.
Planning and Strategy
In 2009 the brothers began to form the new family business. Originally, they wanted to start a brewpub, but quickly realized they didn’t have enough experience to run a restaurant. They put their heads together, and decided to build a production brewery.
“There were a million variables up in the air. What equipment? How much space do we need? Where will we build it?” said Sam. “Jack spearheaded most of the decisions as far as equipment. A lot of the business decisions we made together, and our dad was really a driving force ensuring we were making sound choices.”
The brewery’s location, in Framingham, was a strategic move. The brothers knew they would be self-distributing when they first opened the brewery, and delivering beer to Boston and western Massachusetts is a much easier endeavor when centrally located. Also, real estate is much cheaper in the ‘burbs than in the city.
After the Hendlers signed a lease on the 12,000 square-foot warehouse space in February 2011, brewing equipment was on its way to fill it. Then the question became, what to brew?
As the brothers began to draw up the beer list for Jack’s Abby’s debut, they noticed that most of the beers on the list were lagers.
“We knew we wanted to brew a pilsner as our flagship beer, and that was the first beer we brewed,” said Jack. “The idea was as soon as we could we’d start brewing ales, IPA, stout, whatever. The plan wasn’t to be a lager-only brewery.”
Most breweries have a beer profile that includes ales, and some exclude lagers altogether due to the lengthy and laborious production. Longer fermentation times mean less production and/or more equipment, all of which ultimately effect a brewery’s profit margins.
“If we decided tomorrow to make ales, we would double our production without having to change anything,” said Eric.
“As soon as we started brewing, we were brewing so little that it was unrealistic to get a second yeast strain in,” said Jack, who at the time, was the only brewer. “Then we thought, if we can only have one yeast strain, how can we make the lager work for what we want to do here?”
Helping Jack create some of the brewery’s first beers was seasoned home brewer, Mike Gleason. Gleason discovered Jack’s Abby while drinking a Red Tape Lager on a dinner date with his wife.
“I did some research on where Jack’s Abby was, and went by and took a tour,” said Gleason. “I really liked it and wanted to work there. I gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse, which was to work for free.”
Gleason worked at the brewery as an intern for four months. In September 2011, he was hired as a brewer, and was Jack’s Abby’s first employee. Lashes Lager, a hopbock, and Boston Steam Pie, a California common steam beer flavored with chocolate and vanilla, were both Gleason’s creations.
“There is so much you can do with lager yeast,” said brewer Matt Cohen, Jack’s Abby’s second employee and former brewer at Opa Opa. “And we’ve had such great success doing these hybrid styles.”
“Once we started getting a name for ourselves for brewing these interesting and eccentric lagers, that had to be our marketing plan,” explained Jack. “Why fight it?”
The day the brewery opened in July 2011, Jack’s Abby had three accounts: The Framingham Tavern, British Beer Company (Framingham location), and the Horseshoe Pub in Hudson, Mass.
“The BBC and Horseshoe were really beer-centric places that were interested in offering new and different beers to their customers,” said Sam. “They didn’t even taste the beer before we showed up with a keg. They were willing to take a shot on us.”
In the early days, Sam used the family pickup truck to make deliveries and solicit accounts. As the account list grew, Eric and Mike, when he wasn’t busy brewing, would pick up the slack.
“Jack would try to help,” said Sam. “But his strong suit is not talking to people. His strong suit is making fantastic beer. I’m not sure if he helped or hindered.”
Regardless of who might be the better salesman, the number of businesses carrying Jack’s Abby’s beers has skyrocketed. Since the brewery’s inception, accounts have grown from three to around 850 package store and 500 draft accounts. And instead of the pickup truck, they now use a distributor. In October 2013, they expanded distribution to New York state along I-90.
“They have a vision of where they want to be, but they don’t grow too fast,” said Gleason. “They’re smart about putting money back into the business, getting more tanks, and growing that way.”
After a recent delivery of four 100-barrel tanks, Jack’s Abby is now a 22-tank brewhouse that’s projected to produce 16,000 barrels this year. A 1,000 square-foot walk in refrigerator is under construction, and a 2,000 square foot warehouse across the street was rented as extra storage space. The recently revamped taproom sees at least 500 visitors Wednesday through Saturday.
“The reality is we can probably only grow here for another two or three years,” said Jack. “If we see the same kind of growth, we’d like to think about opening a new brewery. But we’re not in the planning stages for that yet.”
Plans are in the works for distribution in Connecticut. So are new beer recipes, such as the Barrel Aged Cherry Berliner, to be released in late May, and the 3rd Anniversary Lager, which is set to be released at the end of June.
As far as creating a niche in the craft beer market, the brothers feel confident with their efforts.
“There’s no one else stupid enough to do what we’re doing,” said Jack. “I’m not saying there’s not going to be someone trying to put out a ton of lagers, but I think the way we’re doing it is unique.”
“We’re focused on making sure we’re a significant brand in Massachusetts that can stand the test of time,” added Sam. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re definitely on our way.”